P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog, Go!

Central Question: How does one learn to be a reader?

P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog, Go!

Rachel Z. Arndt
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The poodle wants the beagle to like her hat. By the end of Go, Dog. Go!, after the hordes of dogs have gone for the last time, the hat seems to be the only thing driving the meandering plot. Who is this poodle? Who is this beagle? Why doesn’t he like her hats, until he does? And why does she care? Author and illustrator P. D. Eastman doesn’t explain, in part because he’s limited himself to only seventy-five different words, from the first dog to the final Good-by. But also for more theoretical reasons—namely, that to capture reality precisely, the postmodern narrator must refuse to capture it fully. It must be left to the reader to piece the world together.

Unlike those that populate the more verbose, rhymed learn-to-read stories like One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, the words in Go, Dog. Go! are more than just valuable sounds. We depend on them because, along with the simple drawings they adorn, they’re all we have to find a story. This is a careful subversion of the genre: rather than comfort the reader with the usual Seussian cocktail of alliterative, rhyme- and assonance-heavy words enumerating detail after detail—see, for example, Fox in Socks: “Duck takes licks in lakes Luke Luck likes. Luke Luck takes licks in lakes duck likes”—the book rejects the very notion that everything to be found in a book can be found in that book. Empty space abounds in Go, Dog. Go!, and the new reader fidgets in the gaps. This is the point. Those gaps—the white abyss behind the dog roller coaster, the trees that grow out of bare-page nothingness—are where meaning resides. The gaps are where fragments of reality refuse to come together, despite authorial intent and despite the reader’s best attempts at deducing a narrative. Thus it is in the gaps that the reader becomes a reader, using what’s on the page to figure out, and sometimes create, what’s off the page. To wit: motives, intent, friendship, and, we might suspect in the final scene—with the poodle and beagle driving off into the sunset—love.

It’s an arduous yet laconic journey to that sunset. The book opens with a single dog, then two dogs, then more, distinguished only by physical differences: some have spotted coats, some have solid coats, some wear clothes. A green dog is in a bucket at the top of a pulley, and a yellow dog is in another bucket at the bottom. The differences accumulate as Eastman builds on each word by adding a single new one. (In the pulley scene, for instance, we get “The green dog is up” and “The blue dog is in.” Turn the page and there’s the debut of house: “One dog up on a house.”) Every word is relative to the word that’s added next; nothing is isolated, and everything is ambiguous. As the reader notices that despite what’s being added there’s still so much missing, the additive process starts to seem like a subtractive one. The reader’s certainty—a confident sense of story and character, an answer to “Why?”—does not increase with word repetition, as it might in a Dr. Seuss book or even in a grown-up book like Ulysses, in which the final yes derives its meaning from all the yeses that came before. Just because we’ve already seen and read house by the time we see two dogs riding in a house on a boat doesn’t mean we have any idea why they’re doing so.

So the reader looks for clues, hoping to fit together the world’s fragments, even if gaps remain. On a narrative level, the pieces of Go, Dog. Go! are overwhelming in the voids they leave, but on a word level there is comfort in antonyms, which seem to be the dominant rhythm of this world. They move the action forward by setting up the expectation that, like a set of parentheses, once an antonym pair is opened, it must be closed. From the first time the beagle tells the poodle that no, he does not like her hat, the reader senses that there must at some point be a yes. Conversely, after the first driving scene, in which the dogs motor around wildly, we might not expect a complementary scene of well-regulated driving—but when that scene pops up later, it makes sense. Because the existence of one type of thing (big dogs, white dogs) is established in the book’s opening pages, we can count on the existence, eventually, of its opposite (little dogs, black dogs).

In both cases, the tension and the consummation come from the reader’s own wondering, not from the narrative itself—which, after all, ended with the first no. Amid these opposites, Eastman gives the reader no motives or desires, only dogs. But because he’s telling the story—sometimes even giving directions to the dogs: “Work, dogs, work!”—we trust him. We trust that in this lack of reason there is reason, and so we set out to find it.

Lest we start to trust him too much, though, Eastman tricks us: in the third-to-last scene the dogs go to a tree, where they find a dog party. They convene at the tree, the narrator says, because there is a dog party there. But, of course, if they hadn’t convened there, there would be no dog party—the means are the ends, the reason is the lack of reason, and all we can trust is what we observe empirically. Everything else is out of experience and therefore out of existence. The tautology is like something out of Beckett’s Malone Dies, itself a grown-up version of Go, Dog. Go!: “Present state. This room seems to be mine. I can find no other explanation to my being left in it. All this time.” The room is Malone’s because Malone is in it. Malone Dies ends because Malone dies. Go, Dog. Go! ends because the final antonym—the beagle’s not liking the poodle’s hat—has been reconciled.

If Malone Dies is an accumulative story about disintegration, maybe Go, Dog. Go! is an additive story about subtraction. The story tells its own creation: as the number of words grows, order appears to increase, and the poodle moves closer to getting the beagle to say that he likes her hat. It’s tempting, with that putative structure, to think that more words means more certainty. But, per postmodern tradition, order doesn’t actually build; instead it ebbs, with an ending that unravels any comforting patterns. By the close, Eastman has introduced all the words he set out to, but he doesn’t allow his narrator to introduce any meaning. Indeed, meaning doesn’t exist in individual sentences, or in the dogs’ interactions, but in the reader’s interpretation. The reader is the one deciding, each time the beagle says no, what’s wrong with that particular hat. The specifics don’t matter, and that’s the point: with no intent fixed within the narrative, we find our own intent to read, and our own intent to piece together bits of reality—not to form a cohesive whole, but to practice manipulating disparate parts into something both impermanent and manageable.

—Rachel Z. Arndt

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